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Music for viola da gamba of the 18th century

[I] Johann Sebastian BACH, George Frideric HANDEL & Domenico SCARLATTI: "Gamba Sonatas"
Steven Isserlis, cello; Robin Michael, cello [bc]a; Richard Egarr, harpsichord
rec: May 28 - 30, 2014, Monmouth, Wyastone Estate (Concert Hall)
Hyperion - CDA68045 (© 2015) (59'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sonata in D (BWV 1029); Sonata in G (BWV 1027); Sonata in g minor (BWV 1028); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Sonata in g minor (HWV 364b)a; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in d minor (K 90)a

[II] "Viola d'emozione"
Maddalena del Gobbo, viola da gamba; Ewald Donhoffer, harpsichorda
rec: Nov 2013, Vienna, Hofburgkapelle
Archiv - 481 0926 (© 2013) (61'01")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787): Adagio in D (WKO 187); Allegro in d minor (WKO 205); Sonata in e minor (WKO 150)a; Tempo di Menuet in D (WKO 188); Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in C (Wq 136 / H 558)a; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Sonata in g minor (HWV 364b)aa; Georg Philipp TELEMANN 1681-1767): Sonata in e minor (TWV 41,e5)a [1]

Source: [1] Georg Philipp Telemann, Essercizii Musici, 1740

[III] Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): "2nd Pembroke Collection"
Thomas Fritzsch, viola da gamba; Werner Matzke, celloa; Michael Schönheit, harpsichordb, fortepianoc
rec: Jan 15 - 16, May 4 - 5 & 12 - 13, 2014, Rittergut Ermlitz (Herrenhaus, Belle Etage)
Coviello Classics - COV 91411 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.55'45")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Duetto in D (A3:1)a; Duetto in D (A3:2)a; Duetto in G (A3:3)a; Duetto in G (A3:4)a; Sonata in D (A2:49)b; Sonata in D (A2:50)c; Sonata in E (A2:42)c; Sonata in E flat (A2:43)b; Sonata in F (A2:47)b; Sonata in G (A2:48)b; Sonata in g minor (A2:44)b; Sonata in A (A2:51)c; Sonata in B flat (A2:45)c; Sonata in B flat (A2:46)c

Many instruments which were common in the baroque era are still part of the modern symphony orchestra. Despite all sorts of technical adaptations the basics of those instruments have remained the same. But there are also instruments which were popular during the baroque period and have sunk into oblivion with the emergence of the classical and later the romantic style. One of them is the recorder, another one the viola da gamba. It was the revival of early music in the 20th century which made them return to the music scene. The viola da gamba has its roots in the 15th century and during the renaissance it was mainly used for the accompaniment of singers. As viols were built in various sizes and pitches they could perform polyphonic music.

During the 17th century the emerging instrumental virtuosity which was a feature of the stile nuovo also influenced the playing of and composing for the viola da gamba. Composers in England and later in France started to write music for viola da gamba solo, mostly the bass viol. In Germany relatively little solo music was composed. Here the viola da gamba was frequently used as part of an ensemble of violins and viole da gamba, either accompanying voice(s) or in instrumental music. A scoring for two violins, one or more viole da gamba and bc was quite common.

After the turn of the century the viola da gamba faced increasing competition from the cello. Even in France where the viola da gamba could look back at an impressive tradition, it was gradually overshadowed by the cello. Some composers published music which could be played on either instrument. In such pieces composers obviously could not explore the specific features of the viol. But Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr have selected the three sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach which are specifically written for the viola da gamba, even though one of them, the Sonata in G (BWV 1027), has also survived in a version for two transverse flutes and bc. That doesn't mean that they can be indiscriminately played on any instrument. That becomes only too clear in these performances. First of all, these sonatas have the texture of a trio sonata whose upper and bass parts are played by the harpsichord whereas the middle voice is given to the viol. As all three parts are equally important it is essential that the two instruments are in perfect balance. That is not the case here: the cello dominates and often even overshadows the harpsichord. The adagio from the Sonata in G makes that crystal clear. Moreover, these sonatas include a number of passages where Bach has written a trill. These are completely natural on the viola da gamba and also come off well on the transverse flute, in contrast to the cello. Examples are the allegro moderato from the Sonata in G and the andante from the Sonata in D.

The two remaining sonatas were not originally conceived for the viola da gamba which explains why they are more convincing in this scoring. The Sonata in g minor by Handel is scored for viola da gamba but is itself an adaptation of a sonata for violin. The Sonata in d minor by Domenico Scarlatti is one of a handful of sonatas which Ralph Kirkpatrick included in his catalogue of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas but are in fact intended for a melody instrument, with the lower parts reflecting the basso continuo practice of the time. They don't include any indication as to what instrument should play the melody part. They are mostly performed with violin but there are also recordings on the viola d'amore and on the mandolin. The cello is an interesting alternative but historically questionable. In Spain where Scarlatti worked most of his life the cello was probably not very common until the mid-18th century.

Steven Isserlis is a fine player but I am not impressed by his performances here. That especially concerns the sonatas by Bach but in the other two sonatas I also would have liked more subtlety. The disc ends with an arrangement of Bach's chorale Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639); I find the performance unbearably romantic in the way the cello is played.

The Hyperion disc marks the difference between two instruments which are not related as Steven Isserlis suggests, calling the cello "the gamba's rather more robust younger brother, or at least cousin". Maddalena Del Gobbo doesn't agree: the viol has nothing to do with the cello. She should know: she started studying the cello but fell in love with the viola da gamba and decided to abandon the cello altogether. Her programme documents the music written in the time that the viola da gamba's popularity was waning. Among the latest composers of music for the instrument were Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. The former's Sonata in C dates from 1745 and was almost certainly written for Ludwig Christian Hesse, the most famous gambist of his time in Germany and from 1741 to 1761 a member of the chapel of Frederick the Great in which CPE Bach played the harpsichord. The opening andante reflects the Empfindsamkeit. Abel was a brilliant gambist himself. The Abel family had close ties with the Bachs, and when Abel settled in London in 1759 he worked together with Emanuel's youngest brother Johann Christian in the Bach-Abel concerts. As he mostly improvised relatively little from his pen has come down to us. The largest part of his output may have been aimed at the market of amateurs among which there were still quite some players of the viol. The three pieces from the so-called Drexel manuscript are the most 'classical' part of his oeuvre in which the features of the viola da gamba are explored. These are for viola da gamba without accompaniment and could well give some idea of Abel's own playing. In the Sonata in e minor with basso continuo he follows the model of many sonatas of the mid-18th century in its sequence of movements: slow - fast - fast.

Georg Philipp Telemann mastered almost any instrument of his time including the viola da gamba. His output includes 12 fantasias for viol without accompaniment; they were considered as being lost but recently they have been rediscovered (the first recording will be reviewed here in due course). Telemann also included pieces for the gamba in several collections, among them the Essercizii Musici of 1740. Again this collection was intended for amateurs. The sonata by Handel has already been mentioned. Even though Isserlis's performance is alright, only in Ms Del Gobbo's performance on the viola da gamba it shows its qualities to the full.

She delivers fine performances in what is her first recording. She produces a beautiful tone and the expressive features of the various sonatas are convincingly displayed. Only here and there I find her performance a bit too straightforward and would I prefer a more differentiated interpretation, with a stronger contrast between good and bad notes. That doesn't spoil my enjoyment; the pieces by Handel, Telemann and CPE Bach are well represented on disc but Abel's music deserves more attention.

That is reason enough to welcome the third production. Moreover, it includes the first recording of music from a manuscript which was auctioned at Sotheby's in 1994. It comprises fourteen hitherto unknown works: ten sonatas for viola da gamba and bc and four duets for viola da gamba and cello. About five years ago the present owner gave Thomas Fritzsch access to the manuscript which allowed him to perform pieces from the collection in concerts and record the whole set on CD. The first owner was Lady Elizabeth Herbert (née Spencer), Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery (1737-1831) who was one of Abel's pupils. The four duets seem to have been inspired by the fact that her husband played the cello.

These sonatas are modern in comparison to other works from his pen. In his liner-notes Fritzsch writes: "Major keys such as E, E flat, B flat and A flat are already unusual in solo works for viola da gamba, as is the frequent transposition of the Adagio movements into the dominant or subdominant key." The fingerings are also unusual: "They are always clearly recognizable as departures from the conventional techniques; on the one hand, Abel prefers a position of the fingering hand on the fifth, sixth or seventh fret on the top three strings and on the other hand the sliding of a finger under ligatures on one string - playing techniques that we tend to associate with the 19th century. Abel was the first gambist to take full advantage of these options". These aspects make Fritzsch believe that these sonatas date from Abel's late years. They could be the same which were offered for sale in 1794. "In that case the present ten Sonatas were Abel's opus ultimum, his swan-song!"

The sonatas and duets all comprise three movements, except the Duetto in D (A3:1) which has only two. The opening movements are either fast (allegro, vivace) oder moderato (sometimes spelled as modorato). The middle movements are either andantes or adagios and almost all the pieces end with a menuet. The exceptions are the Sonata in D (A2:50) which ends with an allegretto, just like the Duetto in G (A3:3); here it has the form of a rondeau (rondau). The same form is used for the minuet which closes the Duetto in D (A3:1) (rondou).

For these performances Fritzsch plays two late 18th-century instruments, dating from 1774 and 1784 respectively. It is certainly an interesting option that in five sonatas the basso continuo is played on a fortepiano. In Abel's later years this instrument had established itself in England. The use of a Broadwood from 1805 is a little less obvious; I wonder whether a square piano - quite popular in England at the time - would have been a more logical choice.

This production is of major importance. The music is very compelling and highly entertaining. The opening movements are lively and so are the closing minuets with their marked rhythmic accents. These come off perfectly in the performances by Fritzsch, Matzke and Schönheit. I especially enjoyed the adagios which are just wonderful and full of expression. Fritzsch and his colleagues are very sensitive interpreters who are able to bring that out. If you love the viola da gamba you definitely should not miss this set.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Maddalena del Gobbo
Steven Isserlis

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